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On Uganda’s growing pains

By Jeffrey Love

Five markets have burned in Uganda in the past two weeks. Two dozen schools have been reduced to embers in the past month. Three buildings have recently collapsed in the capital. Hundreds of Ugandans are dead, billions of shillings lost, and a government is thoroughly embarrassed.

Theories and conspiracies

It has become fashionable to blame every adverse event in Uganda on a vast conspiracy, sometimes implicating the government, sometimes its opponents, and sometimes actors unconcerned with public life.

Many believe, for example, that the markets were burned by groups intent on exposing the government to criticism. Another theory implicates the developers of a new bus park, who claim that the hawkers at Nakivubo were squatting on land that is scheduled to be developed. At the same time, Kampala’s fire brigade ” with headquarters just behind Owino market – took over an hour to respond to the blaze. Were the fire fighters intentionally blocked from the scene? Or was the government uninterested in stopping the market fire and saving its citizens’ stalls? It depends on whom you ask.

Uganda lacks serviceable fire brigades in most of the country; Kampala’s fire department serves Kampala, Wakiso, Luwero, and others, while the brigades that do exist outside of the central region have no trucks and no permanent staff. All of this betrays either government’s lack of foresight or the fact that, before the Budo inferno, fires were relatively rare in this country. Pick your poison.

And let us not forget the recent spate of building collapses. The tabloids would have you believe that the buildings have collapsed because of a plot against religious organisations and foreigners and well-to-do construction magnates. Once again, it depends on the preconceived notions of the reader.

Each of these theories is a Rorschach test against which our instincts may be judged. But how much truth is there to the allegations? Does it matter? One could not disprove all of the outlandish theories that have arisen to explain this run of disasters even if one were intent on doing so. And whether such theories are accurate or not is unimportant in the long run. Discussions of whether bus drivers or other ethereal forces burned Owino, whether disgruntled students or ambitious developers torched the schools, and whether a rogue construction agency or shoddy work is to blame for the building collapses miss the point entirely. If Ugandans are to attempt to stop the rot, what matters is the underlying cause of the disasters: they are all consequences of rapid economic development.

Growing pains

Like a tree that springs to great heights in only a few years, a state that experiences rapid economic development may encounter growing pains as its structures strain to support new growth. Laws and agencies that once provided enough oversight and regulation and commanded respect may be unable to stand up to the weight of a larger, more diverse economy.

Indeed, the recent string of disasters has shown the Ugandan government ” once a bastion of sound economic planning, responsible growth, and enviable public services ” to be inept at planning, regulation, and disaster response. Economic growth has outstripped the capacity of the government to monitor and to regulate, so the country’s citizens are allowed to complete substandard work while an impotent government stands idly by.

With these ideas in mind, the recent disasters are revealed to be nothing more than the growing pains of a rapidly expanding economy in which the agents of growth are unchecked by a government that lacks the capacity to enforce the rules.

Risky business

The most likely explanation for the Owino fire, then, given the sorry state of Uganda’s public agencies, is that the Kampala fire brigade was simply unprepared for any large-scale fire, even one just a few hundred metres from its headquarters.

The City Council has been unable to keep up with the regulatory demands of rapid construction. Buildings go up with only a cursory glance from regulators, permits are handed out to those who can afford the costs (both official and implicit), and the result is that the expertise that exists ” expertise in planning, urban design, and technical construction ” is ignored in favour of speedy completion of projects. In the cases of the recently collapsed buildings, it is clear that the developers were simply eager to cram as many buildings into as small a space as possible, with complete disregard for sound building principles. One group builds a high rise, then another decides the site is a good one, so it builds next door. But then the first building needs a parking garage, so it digs under the second building. Because construction companies are allowed free reign over the process, regulators are slow to realise the obvious structural deficiencies of a project, and then it is too late.

While a recently released police report indicated that the school fires have most likely been caused by disgruntled students and teachers, the cause of the fires is unimportant in this discussion. What matters is that too many schools are built on too little land; dormitories spring up like wildflowers, classrooms are carved out of unused garages, all because there is money in school administration. And laws and regulations lag behind.

Private and public good

Is there a cost to the bus park developers or the construction companies, school administrators, or arsonists in these cases? Of course. But when the upside to building is great, there is an incentive to ignore planning and rules and simply to build, or to burn down stalls that are in the way of a new park, even if there is a significant possibility of negative consequences, either public or private.

The way forward

Uganda has grown too quickly for its own good. And just as one must fortify a large tree that is at risk of toppling, so too must Ugandans help their country strengthen its root structures. The people must support the government in building capacity to enforce existing regulations and to develop sound new policies, and thus to hold entrepreneurs and developers accountable for their actions, lest the country collapse under its own weight, just like its buildings and markets have done.

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Additional reporting by John Njoroge, & Mubatsi Asinja Habati

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